Norman Minott | Land-titling reform transformative
I read with interest Mark Ricketts' two-part series of articles (last published on October 14, 2018) commenting on Party Leader Dr Peter Phillips' presentation on the final day of the People's National Party's Annual Conference in September.
Although several policy areas were referred to in the articles, I will confine my comments to just one: land policy and land titling, in particular, in my capacity as chairman of the National Land Ownership Commission appointed by Dr Phillips.
Ricketts' thesis is that by continuing to propose a programme of land-titling reform, "at the scale being envisaged", the PNP is advocating a well-intentioned programme that cannot be properly funded as it "would blow every Budget". He quoted upfront costs of "$200,000, $500,000.00" or more for each title.
By this and other inaccuracies, Ricketts has built his thesis on a false premise, with the predictable result that his conclusions are equally false and inaccurate. He went further to accuse the party of overpromising to gain cheap political advantage and has offered no solution of his own, just negativity.
But what are the facts?
The PNP's programme of land reform and land titling is based on the conviction that we, as a people, need to confront the issues of informality and illegality through public policies aimed at regularising informal land tenure and linking the informal extralegal economy with the formal economy.
Given the important role that land plays in economic growth and social development, there ought to be consensus around the need to establish stable communities where people can go about their daily lives free of the fear of dislocation and disruption, where they can use their unutilised land capital to gain access to loans and credit and to leverage their main asset to invest in businesses and thus boost the economy.
There is a wealth of researched information and experience available internationally to show that people need to feel secure about their legal-tenure status to be willing to invest in housing and to feel a part of the economy. Security of tenure, enforceable legal rights, and increased access to credit are all positive by-products of an efficient land-titling programme.
These facts and observations demonstrate that there is an inextricable nexus between the proposed social revolution in land tenure and titling and the productivity revolution, the economic revolution, the growth revolution, and the revolution mentioned by Ricketts, which he has failed to recognise.
Accordingly, the leader of the Opposition pledged that the next PNP Government would put in place facilities to significantly increase the pace of the current land-titling programme that was initiated via the Land Administration Management Programme (LAMP) in 2005.
National Land Agency statistics reveal that at August 2017, there were 339,000 properties on the valuation roll without a title. The total number of untitled properties is likely to be several thousand more, possibly as many as 450,000.
Problem that Must be Fixed
This is a problem that must be fixed. But it cannot be fixed overnight. Dr Phillips never said it could be. The aim is to significantly address this problem in the first three years of the programme.
Obviously, keeping the cost per title to a manageable level is critical to success. The Patricia Sinclair McCalla report commissioned by the Government in 2017 estimates that the cost per title can be reduced from the current $191,000 to $134,000, inclusive of operations, surveying costs and, most important, Government of Jamaica fees (stamp duty, property tax, waiver fees, etc.) which our research suggests can amount to 25-30 per cent of the total cost.
These fees and taxes are revenue that the Government would not be collecting if the project to increase the number of titles produced is not implemented and, in our view, should be waived. Moreover, the waiver would be a good investment in the future, if for no other reason than that it would bring a number of new properties on to the tax roll,and make available additional funding for land titling and other social programmes..
Our research has established that it is possible to significantly reduce the average cost per title and to simplify the title application process by a combination of legislative changes to remove costly legal obstacles, and by grant and loan funding from as yet untapped international and local sources including the NHT.
Readers would be interested to learn that for decades, the Government has been collecting Assurance Fund monies that should have been invested in national cadastral mapping projects, which would have a significant impact on the cost of title surveys. This is one of the initiatives that will be implemented to reduce the average cost per title to no more than $85,000.
In addition, an innovative plan has been developed to finance most of the title application cost, which will further reduce the upfront amount that each applicant has to find. The initial capital cost and recurrent expenditure for the project is well within the capacity of the Government.
With these plans in place, consider the increased number of persons who, armed with a title, would be eligible for a National Housing Trust facility or a credit union loan. If we assume two persons per household per title, the multiplier effect this would have on the economy and the social stability that it will encourage would be enormous.
Given the crime level, we are forced (quite rightly) to allocate $33 billion per annum to the police to maintain law and order. How can we regard an expenditure of $2 billion per annum on an expanded and effective titling programme as too costly given the considerable social and economic benefits that have been enumerated?
Because of the seriousness of this national issue, the PNP is not willing to make it the subject of political gamesmanship and a cheap attempt to gain political advantage. The party's policy on land titling is well thought out, practical, and entirely feasible.
Dr Phillips' presentation demonstrates that he and the party are not afraid to take on difficult issues and, in a completely non-partisan manner, to come up with workable solutions that are implementable.
Dr Phillips has no need for overpromising. The people have always been able to tell who truly has their interest at heart.
- Norman Minott is an attorney-at-law and chairman of the National Land Ownership Commission. Email feedback to email@example.com.